[Review] 'The Unfamiliar' Casts Familiar Tropes into a New and Terrifying Light
You know the feeling you get when you return to your hometown after years and a lifetime of experience away?...
...Maybe things look the same, but they feel different. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it feels…off. It’s a difficult feeling to articulate to others, no matter how hard you try. This sense of imbalance is what The Unfamiliar is all about.
Directed by Henk Pretorius and written by Pretorius and Jennifer Nicole Stang, The Unfamiliar tells the story of British Army doctor Izzy Cormack (Jemima West), just returned from the front, trying to readjust to civilian and home life. But something is wrong with her house. Something is off about her family. Her teenage daughter Emma (Rebecca Hanssen) is unusually cold. Her son Tommy (Harry McMillan-Hunt) is doing protection spells and building a two-way radio to “talk to daddy while he’s asleep”. Her husband Ethan (Christopher Dane), meanwhile, is bent on convincing her the problem is her PTSD. A mother knows when her family’s in danger, though, and she’ll stop at nothing to save them.
The Unfamiliar is a masterclass in tension building. From formatting to sound design to scene-stealing, off-kilter kids, this movie knows how to keep us off balance. The stakes are made clear from the opening sequence: a body dragged, gagged, and bound, a ritual in sunlight. Pretorius and Stang certainly know how to grab an audience’s attention.
The story unfolds over seven days, each more tense than the last. This is terror on a timeclock. Part of the reason we are so immediately drawn in is the stellar sound design. Within the first 20 minutes I found myself catching my breath at least five times, all thanks to Jim Petrak and Simon Gershon’s prowess with the weaponization of sound and silence. Every dark corner and sunbathed spot Izzy explores while trying to uncover what’s haunting her family is painted with isolated sounds, floating music, and static-drowned voices trying to guide her through. The silence and muted volume invite us deeper into the screen, so we’re almost walking along next to her; the sharp, sudden sounds of something as simple as stepping on a dropped toy snap us back into reality and back into the fear.
Without question, this movie would not be the same without the next-level sound design, but the standout performance of Harry McMillan-Hunt as Tommy makes this movie for me. At once unsettling and sympathetic, McMillan-Hunt’s skill pulls you in and makes you feel as though he could push you off the edge and into darkness at any moment. Children in horror are rarely beacons of goodwill, but it takes a rare gift to balance the inherent wariness we all have with the innocence that triggers the need to protect. McMillan-Hunt has this gift in spades.
The Unfamiliar is one of those movies that I go into expecting good things (who doesn’t love haunted houses with equally haunted women in them?) and come away with all my expectations blown out of the water. While it could be read as a commentary on PTSD and its effects—in itself something I’ve not often seen explored—it’s also the story of a mother protecting her family at all costs. Being that it’s also a haunting movie, Izzy is both not believed and borderline gaslit into doubting herself. Unlike most films of this kind, however, Izzy never backs down from her beliefs. She knows something unnatural is going on with her family, even if she doesn’t know what. Even as she tells her husband he was right about the mediums she enlisted to help being grifters, she continues her search for the source of the torment with unflagging determination. Every time he tries to tell her she’s the problem, she’s not afraid to get in his face and let him know just how wrong he is.
The final trick of storytelling in this film is one of the most difficult to pull off: the story folding in on itself from different perspectives. The Unfamiliar twists deftly into itself, planting seeds in the beginning that serve to build viewers’ unease only to unfurl and pull the rug from beneath our feet. I found several of my subconsciously formed ideas about the events and characters subverted in ways that kept me guessing, and even hit my heart.
The Unfamiliar may not be telling a wholly original story but, true to its name, it does cast a familiar trope into a new and uncanny light. With a powerhouse creative team to guide it, it brings genuine fear to family connection.
The Unfamiliar is now on VOD from Vertical Entertainment.
By Katelyn Nelson
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